Review by Sean Boelman
Winner of the Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, Cooper Raiff’s directorial debut Shithouse exemplifies the best of independent filmmaking. Although it is admittedly a little rough around the edges, that is part of the charm of this exercise in lo-fi filmmaking.
The movie follows a college freshman suffering from a particularly troublesome case of homesickness as he spends the night with a sophomore RA with her own troubles. For much of the first half of the film, it plays out in pretty conventional romantic comedy form, complete with meet cute and a series of alternatingly sweet and honest conversations.
However, around the one-hour mark, Raiff takes the movie in a very different direction and it becomes clear that he intends to take a much more honest approach to the idea of college romance. The result is a film that feels surprisingly (and sometimes painfully) real. What starts out almost like a romantic fantasy instead turns into something much deeper.
Raiff also has something profound to say about the college experience. Part of what makes Raiff’s movie stand out is that it feels like a personal experience, rather than a universal one. At one point in the film, the characters discuss how every person’s experience of adjusting to adulthood is different, and that is a lot more accurate than many college movies have been in the past.
The character development in the movie is very strong as well. The protagonist of the film is very compelling, and that is because the character is (at least in part) inspired by Raiff’s own experiences. Something unique about this movie, though, is that it also does a phenomenal job of developing the love interest equally, making her a complex character rather than a manic pixie dream girl.
Raiff also stars in the film, and he obviously has a lot of connection to the material, allowing his performance to feel very naturalistic. However, thanks to the help of Jay Duplass, who lent his support to Raiff, the movie has a surprisingly high-profile ensemble with a lot of great performances. Dylan Gelula is the biggest standout as the film’s co-lead, bringing a lot of humanity to the character, but Logan Miller and Amy Landecker are also great in their roles.
On a technical level, the movie is a little rough, but thankfully, it doesn’t suffer the common issues of a lot of directorial debuts. Raiff obviously loves what he does, and that passion allows this film to shine. There are some really cool things happening in the movie’s visuals and sound design that prove that Raiff has a lot of talent and potential behind the camera.
Shithouse is an interesting take on the college dramedy genre, and it signals the arrival of an exciting new voice onto the indie scene. The likable nature of the film means that it will be available to audiences sooner rather than later.
Shithouse was set to debut at the cancelled 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.